Anna Liz Nichols, Michigan Advance
Michigan is the 10th state to ban what advocates for ending child marriage call “a human rights abuse” after Gov. Gretchen Whitmer signed legislation Tuesday to raise the minimum age for marriage to 18 years old.
The ban is “long overdue,” Whitmer said in a news release Tuesday.
“Keeping Michiganders – especially young women – safe and healthy is a top priority,” Whitmer said. “As a county prosecutor, I went after those who used their power to prey on young people, and as governor, I am proud to sign legislation to sign these protections into law. Together, we can make Michigan a safe and welcoming place for everyone.”
According to data collected by Unchained at Last, a national nonprofit organization working to implement bans on child marriage in every state, more than 5,400 child marriages occurred in Michigan between 2000 and 2021, 95% of which were marriages between girls and older men.
Previously, Michigan had been one of a handful of states with no legal minimum age for marriage. The law allowed 16- and 17-year-olds to get married if they had parental consent. Those who were below the age of 16 needed the approval of a judge in addition to permission from a parent.
The age of consent in Michigan is 16, unless the parties involved are married to each other. Proponents of the legislation call Michigan’s previous marriage laws a loophole for child rapists.
Most people in Michigan already thought child marriage was a problem of the past, but the majority of states allow child marriage, Fraidy Reiss, founder of Unchained at Last told the Advance on Monday ahead of the bill signing.
“We’re talking about a horrific human rights abuse that creates a nightmarish legal trap for minors and legalizes, in some cases, statutory rape when it involves a child who is not yet 16, not even old enough to consent to sex,” Reiss, a survivor of forced marriage, said. “In the year 2023, we shouldn’t still be talking about this, but at least very soon, this will be a problem of the past.”
Reiss said when the group started asking lawmakers in different states to implement bans on child marriage in 2015, more than half of states had no legal minimums for marriage and many have implemented minimum ages, but they still allow minors to marry.
“That’s one of the reasons that we’re so grateful in Michigan is that they didn’t pass some half-assed measure that allows them to take credit for ending child marriage without actually doing that, which is what unfortunately we have seen some other states do,” Reiss said.
The legislation banning child marriage passed the Legislature by large margins and with bipartisan sponsorship and support. Sen. Sarah Anthony (D-Lansing) said in the news release Tuesday, that is something to be proud of.
“Since first introducing a bill to end child marriage in 2018, I have heard countless stories, particularly from our young girls, of abuse they have endured in marriages they could not by themselves legally consent to. For years, efforts to end child marriage were shelved by those in power, and for years our children suffered,” Anthony said. “By enacting this law today, we are protecting our young ones and sending a clear message that child abuse in any form is unacceptable in our state.”
The ban on child marriage didn’t go through the Legislature without opposition or concerns from a handful of lawmakers, however.
One of the lawmakers that gave no votes to the Senate and House versions of the ban, state Rep. Matt Maddock (R-Milford), sent the Advance an email statement from he and his spouse, former Michigan GOP Chair Meshawn Maddock, in which they called transgender people a slur and claimed, without evidence, that: “The same people who put tra—ies in elementary schools and libraries are suddenly hyper-moralistic about 17 year old High School Sweethearts getting married, I don’t get it[.]”
Sen. Jim Runstead (R-White Lake) who ended up not voting on the main bill in the Senate’s version of the ban attempted in June to amend the main bill to tie in a block on puberty-blocking drugs from being administered to minors, saying if 16- and 17-year-olds who can “legally have sex” but will now be deemed too young to marry, children should be prohibited from taking puberty-blocking drugs.
The “romanticizing of a human rights abuse” by misrepresenting the data in Michigan on child marriage and addressing it as anything other than a widespread abuse of power largely by older men to young girls is “frankly appalling” Reiss said.
“It’s one thing when you don’t know enough about the issue to say something frankly ignorant, but we have spent years educating the legislators in Michigan,” Reiss said.
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